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I did about 2 weeks worth of work on a website about a year ago for a client. It was a straightforward server migration, plus a bit of CSS. The client was happy, I invoiced, he paid.

A couple of weeks ago, I was contacted by a London based outsourcing agency. They have taken over the site and want to make some changes to it. This is all fine, I don't care who works on the site.

The trouble is, the agency is technically hopeless. They keep calling me asking how to do trivial things. For example: how do I connect my GUI to the database, or how do I change this bit of html.

It's not a complex site, it's just a bog-standard Rails instance hosted on Heroku. A standard Rails stack, any Rails dev could work on it.

They're always polite, but they will not stop calling me. They have full admin access and all the passwords. My instinct is always to teach and to help, but really I don't think I am helping because they keep asking the same questions.

My dilemma:

  • I don't want to harm my old client - who was nice - by leaving the agency stranded.
  • I don't want to engage with the agency, I suspect they would not pay any invoice I sent them, and they are grindingly painful to deal with.
  • I don't want to get political by re-engaging with the old client.
  • I don't want to put myself in harms way by being involved with any screw-up this agency creates.

What is the most professional course of action?

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    Are you invoicing for the support? If not, that seems like the professional thing to do to me. – user2989297 Oct 13 '15 at 18:51
  • Hi @user2989297 - I suspect this agency would not pay any invoice I sent to them, and really I don't want my company tied to them professionally. They come across as unsavoury, I really don't trust them. – superluminary Oct 13 '15 at 18:54
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    I would send them a polite note, "I'm sorry - but I was not the original developer of this project. I helped {Customer} migrate to a new server and update some CSS elements. You may wish to engage the original developer." You didn't sign on for this work, so it's perfectly fine to pass it back upstream. – Wesley Long Oct 13 '15 at 18:54
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    @superluminary That's the point. An unsavory agency will bleed you dry when you are giving away freebies. The moment you say "erm... I dont have a support agreement with you, so any further support will require a support contract" will make them vanish. And it is done in a professional manner instead of an informal, almost 'between friends' pass-the-buck message. – user2989297 Oct 13 '15 at 18:58
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    It's not even a bluff. If they are genuine and sign a contract, you'll be sure to be paid for the work you do. (If you're scared they'd still refuse, you can even ask them pay upfront.) – Erik Oct 14 '15 at 9:44
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I don't want to get political by re-engaging with the old client.

I think you need to do a stakeholder analysis and determine who is really the important party here. The only reason you care about helping the agency is that you care about the client. You need to have a discussion with the client about these problems. They may ask you to support the agency and bill them (the client) directly. They may ask you to refer another agency. They may ask you to take over the engagement. They may have other ideas you could help them with.

But working for another agency for free is unsustainable. If it takes time to help them, you need to bill for it, or tell them to stop calling you, and the way to do that without leaving your client stranded is to inform the client.

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    It may be that the client doesn't know that the agency that they have engaged is incompetent. Every time you answer a question for free you are enabling their continuing ignorance. If you really want to help your client you will let them know what is going on. And tell the agency that you need to charge for your time, and that you cannot continue to work on behalf of the client without their authorization. Tell them they need to call the client and set up another support contract. – Francine DeGrood Taylor Oct 13 '15 at 20:54
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    Exactly as @FrancineDeGroodTaylor said. If they can keep calling you to get information and relay it as their own it's only doing them good. Talk to the Client. You may get a contract out of the whole business, or at the very least, get the Agency off your back. You seem to hold the Client in high regard and typically that's a two-way street. I'm sure if you two had a decent relationship they would be more than willing to get you out of the loop if it's impeding on your time. – zfrisch Oct 13 '15 at 22:06
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But YOU are not harming the client. The client harmed themselves by going with an incompetent outsourcing agency. I would argue that you are actually harming the company by helping the agency as they might not figure out they have an incompetent outsourcing agency - or figure it out after paying them for a year. It is one thing if they asked some one time questions. From what you say they are just plain incompetent. I bet they just put Joe or whoever was available on the task with no regard for proper skills.

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Don't invoice the agency for work done. That's indeed not likely to succeed. Tell them that you've helped them for free until now, but any future consultancy will have to be paid up front. Considering the circumstances, I'd quote $100/hour, billed in 15 minute increments, 1 hour minimum per call, 10 hour minimum up front payment. Feel free to adjust this, but don't make it cheap. Calling you really should be a last resort for them.

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If you're having concerns or trust issues, ask them to pay you for your time in advance on some sort of retainer. They'll complain, counter-offer or leave you alone. My guess is they have someone who is technically struggling and you're his only hope.

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